In a Paharganj lane, Sangh coaches IAS aspirants, a third of this year’s batch trained there

First published here:

Neighbourhood B-schools: can they deliver?

First published in Mint:–High-on-promise-but-can-they-deli.html

High on education

First published in Mint:

Bihar’s IIT dream

Patna: Along the busy Rajendra Nagar flyover in Patna, the skyline is dotted with huge, irregularly placed hoardings. More than a hundred in number, they congregate with a purpose: to help every child in the city enter the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), the country’s premier technical institutes.

This dream caught Navneet Rajan’s fancy when he was struggling to balance his aspirations and limited means at the Patna Muslim High School. He enjoyed chemistry and mathematics; and the slogan in the neighbourhood only helped concretize an idea: “Do not be a chemist; become an IITian.”

To make things easier, he, like thousands in previous years, did not have to set out for Kota, the city in Rajasthan which has become synonymous with the IITs for the sheer number of coaching institutes. All of them train students for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), conducted for admission to the IITs.

Rajan signed up with JEE Classes, a newly launched coaching institute that caters to Patna’s IIT aspirants. The coaching institute says it delivers on Kota’s promise—but with cheaper fees that can range from Rs25,000 to Rs60,000 a year. Coaching in Kota can cost a student on an average Rs15,000-20,000 more, excluding travel and accommodation expenses.

Rajan is one of 700 in his batch, where several batches add up to a student strength of 1,500. In a class resembling a downtown garage, the students make several rows of intent listeners as their teacher writes equations on the blackboard and addresses the class through a microphone. In a peculiar gender divide, girls occupy the front benches; boys sit in the back rows. Yet, as ambitions go, they all think equal. Everyone here hopes to get into the IITs; an average one of 5,000 aspirants qualifies for the JEE every year.

Elsewhere, too, this dream has triggered a deluge. The city of the working class and small-time traders is now waking to a smart new set of coaching institutes that promise a seat in the IITs. Coaching class owners recall that about a decade ago, there were around 300 such institutes, that helped students get admission to both medical and engineering colleges. Today, an estimated 1,000 such coaching institutes are run here, positioning IITs as tickets to a dream job and promising to make Patna “the next Kota”.

More than a hundred new classes have been set up in the last couple of years, thanks to several coaching institutes from Delhi and Kota setting up branches.

Here, success stories from the big cities are seeping into the psyche of the middle class and fuelling ambitions. Just last year, Shitikanth, who uses his first name only, from a school in Patna secured the top spot in the JEE. That was 27 years after another student from the state hit the merit list with a second position in 1981.

In recent years, at least a thousand students from the state have made it to the IITs, with more than half the number coached at the home-grown training institutes. Super 30, a tent house coaching institute for the state’s underprivileged, is now the best fable in town.

As local tales go, one doesn’t just need to make way through littered alleys and roughshod roads to reach the institute, also known as the Ramanujan Mathematical Academy. There is a stringent entrance test to qualify for admission and for 30 seats, about 5,000 apply every year.

For the deserving, boarding and food are provided at two small student lodges in the midst of the cacophonous town, at a meagre Rs6,000 a year.

Poring over a thick book in one of the barely furnished lodges, Kumod Ranjan, 18, is unconcerned about the lack of a ceiling fan in his room. “Sweat keeps us burning. What if we sleep during study hours?’’ he says.

In less than three months, he along with 29 other promising mathematicians, picked from economically weaker sections, will appear for the JEE.

According to house tradition, each one of them has to qualify because they are what make the Super 30, an initiative launched by founder Anand Kumar along with top cop Abhyanand.

Six years ago, 18 of the Super 30 students cracked the IIT entrance. The number rose to 22 in 2004 and 26 in 2005. Last year, it recorded 100% success.

Then, for the lesser equals, there are various options: Genius Forty, Fantastic Fifty and Stupendous Sixty, styled after Anand’s Super 30.

Bhupesh Kumar, founder of Genius Forty, says it’s not about aping anyone, however. “We are into welfare initiatives. We are doing some good work,” he says, adding that his institute picks up 40 students to coach for the IITs every year at heavily subsidized fees.

At Vision Classes, however, ex-IITian and founder K. Singh’s slogan for the institute—“Let’s make Patna the next hub for IIT coaching”—also makes profound business sense. After 11 years at a coaching institute in Kota, Singh returned to his hometown last year to arrest the flow of students to the Rajasthan town.

“Our dream is to set up a system which stops the brain drain from here. Bihar loses approximately 30,000-40,000 students to coaching centres in Delhi and Kota every year,” he says.

Singh’s vision is already seeing results. Sujata Kumari, 18, who coached for a year at Kota’s famed Bansal classes, along with two others, joined his institute as soon as it was set up. “My parents didn’t have enough money to pay for another year. Here, teachers have experience from Kota and the classes match that quality,” she says.

But competition for the likes of Vision Classes has grown tougher. While institutes such as Delhi-based FIIT-JEE and Kota-based Daswani Classes and Resonance have already made deep inroads in the flourishing business, several others like Sahil Study Circle and Vidhyamandir Classes have also stepped in with glossy brochures and air-conditioned classrooms over the last couple of years and are offering attractive discounts. “We have kept our fees 30% lower than the fees being charged at our Delhi centres. This offer is open only to students from Bihar,” says Amit Singh, administrator at Sahil Study Centre in Patna, which is headquartered in Delhi.

Many of the locally set up institutes, therefore, including Singh’s, have aggressive marketing strategies in place to meet the competition including launch of websites to attract outstation students also, free T-shirts with the institute’s slogans and coffee mugs and tie-ups with local schools to tap the IITs aspirants at a young age.

At JEE Classes, administration head Balaji, 30, with an engineering degree from IIT Bombay and a management course from Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, is using his four-year stint in the corporate sector to hard sell JEE as the city’s premier coaching institute. “The education sector in Patna is booming and this is the time to erect good infrastructure and teaching facilities for students here,” he points out, adding that in the last one year, JEE Classes has grown to four centres in the city. “We hope to enrol 4,000 students this year.”

But as with any thriving business in Bihar, there are challenges too. Kumar, whose Super 30 now holds a near-iconic status and has featured in international media regularly, has survived two fatal attacks in the last five years. He blames it on bitter professional rivalry. “There are coaching institutes who do not want us to grow,” he says.

Today, most prominent coaching centres in the city have hired private security guards, from Vision Classes to JEE Classes, though few admit that deepening rivalry is now posing grave dangers.

In Kumar’s case, this perhaps means living life dangerously. He has a posse of security guards provided by the state police to accompany him each time he steps out of home.

This story was first published in Mint:

Islamic students body on a mission for peace

Pallavi Singh
New Delhi: Hashmatullah Khan says the combination invites scrutiny: students, computers and Islam. In his case, it gets worse. He is general secretary of the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO).

No, not the Students Islamic Movement of India, better known as SIMI, and effectively banned for alleged extremist activities. But Khan can’t avoid the connotation.

Besides both having educated, young Muslims as members, the groups have the same founding father: the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), a semi-political, religious organization, which founded SIO in 1982 after SIMI, that emerged as its offshoot in 1977, broke away from it in 1981.

And so, SIMI and SIO are like estranged family who “shall never meet”, says Bishruddin Sharqi, national president of the latter. “It is like two separate groups who do not agree with each other—one that chose peace and another that chose violence,” he says.

Blood brothers they may be, but the groups have charted conflicting courses, both in principle and actions. While SIMI is largely underground after the government crackdown, SIO is a gradually swelling student revolution in the making, taking Islam beyond the parodied stereotypes of fundamentalism and violence. Its mission: to prepare students, Muslims and non-Muslims, for reconstruction of a peaceful India on the basis of Islamic principles.

All for education: Subair Ahmad, a student of bachelor’s in philosophy and an SIO member, at Jamia Millia Islamia. He travelled to New Delhi from Coimbatore three years ago after qualifying for a scholarship. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

In one of such rooms on the first floor, Khan, 28, single and soft-spoken, serves as office functionary during the day, and studies at night for a PhD in psychology he hopes to pursue after his two-year term at SIO is over. He studied engineering at Karnataka’s Gulbarga University and did postgraduate work in psychology at Madras University before heading to Delhi to serve at the SIO headquarters in 2006. “They elected me to this post and such responsibility is an honour to carry. We all have to live our lives but running a struggle is a noble task,” he says.

Khan is not alone. There are many others, all below 30 and studying to be engineers, doctors and professors. But career advancement for monetary gains is not on SIO’s agenda; the larger goal is to find the roots of culture. “It’s important to know who we are and where we come from. We need an education system that doesn’t just create jobs but makes better human beings out of young people. This is the only solution to corruption and violence,” Khan says.

So, along with weekly meetings to discuss the Quran’s teachings, SIO amply harps on the same teachings to help its members introspect and regain the “lost struggle”. “There is so much materialism around. Everyone is racing to make money. Families are breaking down and women are being objectified. We are aping the West. We have to struggle for indigenous ideas of development,” Nazeer Ahmad Bagdali, office secretary of SIO, explains.

Practically applied, the organization is comfortable with sex education in schools but not for children below puberty. It welcomes reservation for other backward classes (OBCs), but seeks more Central universities for education of minorities.

It launched campaigns for peaceful campuses after the reported incidents of violence at Aligarh Muslim University. Technology as a tool of development and campaign is more than a mere buzzword. Ten years ago, SIO was one of the earliest student groups to have launched its website. Recent addition has been a text messaging service aimed at delivering updates on its activities to its members and associates.

“With India emerging as an IT power, it’s a great opportunity for us to discover cheaper and more effective ways of spreading education. SIO has kept ahead with the changing times and focused on students’ issues more than politics,” says S.Q.R. Ilyas, former SIO member who now edits Afkar-e-Milli, an Urdu journal and is also a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Like Ilyas, a large number of SIO members graduate to JIH, which works for communal harmony with other religious groups, such as Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. JIH’s leadership includes both Muslim clerics, known as the ulema, and educated professionals and academicians, many of whom were once SIO members. JIH has also worked to influence India’s foreign policy to favour Muslim nations and condemn the policies of Israel and the US.

But SIMI is a past neither JIH nor SIO wants to visit. “We have nothing to do with SIMI and, therefore, we wouldn’t like to talk about it,” says Khan in response to persistent queries and veers to SIO’s growing spread across the country, and even in Nagaland and Tripura.

In the years since its inception, the organization has grown to a membership strength of 4,110, in addition to 94,504 associates and 34,358 junior associates. Total units of SIO count up to 621, with more than 3,000 campus branches in universities and 65 branches in religious institutions across the country.

From these institutions, the organization has found its national-level leaders—from states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, with degrees in languages—from Arabic to Bangla, history and commerce, among others.

Twenty-year-old Bagdali is one such aspirant from Bidar in Karnataka. Son of an auto-rickshaw driver and eldest among nine siblings, Bagdali’s early days with SIO at his hometown lead him to grow within the organization’s rank and files. Today, he manages office affairs of SIO and pursues his bachelor’s in Urdu literature from Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad through distance education mode. “If not for SIO, I wouldn’t have dreamt of education,” he says in a rush.

While educational awareness programmes are on SIO’s agenda with special focus on enrolment in schools, educational assistance in the form of scholarships, book banks, libraries, reading rooms, study circles, career guidance, hostels and coaching classes are also arranged for the students.

For women, they have a separate wing—Girls Islamic Organisation, with the same goals and organizational set-up.

One of the scholarship programmes launched by the SIO has helped more than 12,000 students across the country, including Bagdali, attain higher education. Subair Ahmad, a bachelor’s student of philosophy at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, travelled to Delhi from Coimbatore three years ago after qualifying for a scholarship. “My parents couldn’t have funded my education here. SIO pays my fees and accommodation expenses,” Ahmad says.

But the Jamia student is more excited about the fact that he can now speak fluent English. This is part of SIO’s efforts towards education in the English medium, in a break from the traditional madrasa education. The organization is even mulling a universal education programme along the lines of the government-funded Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and opening of centres funded by the government under the National Institute of Open Schooling in madrasas and Muslim schools for basic education in science and English.

“This is where the future lies. We can’t live in the past and let our youth suffer and feel suffocated. SIO will continue to give them a positive direction and means of peaceful struggle for a better nation,” SIO’s national president Sharqi says.

But beneath the robust purpose lurk muted fears. After aggressive campaigns in line with Jamaat’s call for activism on issues such as the contentious Shah Bano judgement of 1985, which called for lifelong alimony for Muslim women after divorce, and the Babri mosque demolition in 1992, SIO’s theme shifted from active struggle to educational goals.

“We as an organization realized that till the time we are educationally backward, no change can be brought about,” Ilyas, who is also member of Jamaat’s Babri Mosque Movement Coordination Committee, says. At a convention to celebrate 25 years of the organization last year, SIO members spoke on the threats Islam faced: extremism and misinterpretations of Quran. They also found compelling themes to address in the future: education and dialogue.

This story was first published in Mint – [ ]

Government’s madrasa reform plan hits theological hurdle

New Delhi: The impasse over a government proposal to modernize madrasas, or traditional Islamic schools, illustrates how a “minority mindset” imposed by the ulema, or clergy, and politicians could draw Muslims deeper into the morass of conservatism, poverty and unemployment.

Fostering education: (from left) Shafiqur Rahman, Abdul Khan, Afaque Rahmani and Salim Akhtar Bellali at a New Delhi hotel in September after receiving the national award for best Urdu teachers. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Since taking over as the human resource development minister in May, Kapil Sibal has been driving reforms in all areas of education. Among his initiatives is a renewed push for the 2004 Madrasa Modernisation Scheme, which aims to include the teaching of modern subjects in the largely theological curriculum and centralize the management of the thousands of Islamic seminaries spread all across India.

“It’s a big step for Muslim education,” says Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the grandnephew of one of independent India’s founders, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and a writer on minority issues and madrasa education. The scheme will enable students from various parts of the country to seek jobs of their choice, he says.

Changes are urgently needed to improve the state of the community. A committee under former Delhi high court chief justice Rajinder Sachar, which conducted independent India’s first exhaustive study on how Muslims fare in education and employment compared with others, established that the community was lagging behind in education and government jobs.

Some 25% of Muslim children in the age group 6-14 have never been to school, though the national average primary enrolment rates are above 95%, the committee found. The Sachar committee also found that only 3% of Muslim children went to madrasas, denting the government’s argument for using the modernization of religious schools as a means to improve the community’s primary education.

Sibal promised a consensus within 100 days on the scheme, which the government views as crucial for the long-term uplift of the community. Modern education will provide Muslim youth from these seminaries a progressive socio-political outlook as well as help them find jobs and assimilate into the Indian success story. But the consensus deadline passed in August, and there is still no agreement on reforming madrasa education.

The reason? Many madrasas find the teaching of modern subjects such as science and mathematics alongside the Quran too much of a dichotomy. Sections of the ulema and politicians belonging to the community also view the move as government intervention that will dilute the essentially theological nature of the madrasas.

Elusive consensus

The Madrasa Modernisation Scheme was proposed in 2004 by the newly set-up national monitoring committee for minorities education, effectively formalizing a 1986 government initiative to improve the quality of education at the schools.

It provides for setting up an All-India Madrasa Board to monitor the implementation of the modernization programme as well as help them upgrade infrastructure and facilities.

The Central Madrasa Board Bill 2009, which is yet to be moved in Parliament due to a lack of consensus, empowers the board to take steps for the standardization of the non-theological aspects of seminary education and its comprehensive, systematic and integrated development.

The board can promote education in non-theological subjects such as science, social science, mathematics, English and Hindi without interfering in any manner with the theological content and evaluation of madrasa education. The scheme will also devise ways to promote education of Muslim girls to eradicate gender-based educational disparities.

About 6,000 madrasas, 1,800 teachers and 700,000 children will be covered under the scheme for qualitative improvement, which would enable the children to attain standards prescribed by the national education system in formal subjects.

During 2008-2009, Rs27 crore was released for 4,597 madrasas in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The scheme will also provide augmented infrastructure in private aided/unaided minority schools/institutions, estimated at around 400 across India, in order to enhance the quality of education.

But most of the 18 members of Parliament (MPs) from the Muslim community, who met ministry officials to discuss the issue in October, opposed the terms for the constitution of the national madrasa board. The MPs said the proposal, which stipulates certain appointment norms, may lead to interference by the government in the functioning of madrasas and not adequately represent the Muslim community.

Caught in the middle

The impasse has disappointed people such as Afaque Rahmani, who operates from the ill-equipped Madrasa Ahmadia in Bihar’s Madhubani district. Rahmani, a 54-year-old postgraduate in botany, is pro-reform and looks at modernization as crucial to the progress of the community at large. He already teaches science at the madrasa of his own accord, but was banking on the policy change to get state-of-the-art infrastructure and faculty for his students.

For 23 years, Rahmani has managed to cope with the challenge of teaching science along with the religious teaching of the Quran with rudimentary facilities. But in September, when the human resources development ministry proposed Rahmani’s name with three others as the country’s best Urdu teachers for the President’s medal, he joined the emerging chorus from the seminaries to be heard. The discontent is not just due to the dilemma over integrating modern subjects with religious texts; it pertains to the very rudimentary, day-to-day needs of the madrasas.

One computer has been procured to impart vocational training to children. But apart from that, Rahmani has just a few pieces of chalk and a blackboard. Typically, he says, the hurdles are basic—such as how to show his students chemical reactions or the dynamics of a spring balance as listed in textbooks. “Unless your students see the chemicals turning yellow, blue or red in a beaker, how much fun can they have studying science?”

Rahmani’s love for science and the joy of teaching, despite the resource crunch, keep him going. Back in 1976, when Rahmani had just joined the madrasa after his postgraduation at a local college in Madhubani, he had gone on a door-to-door campaign to get children to attend the school. “There was much resistance and disbelief,” he recalls.

Enrolment has risen to 500 over the years, he says. Since 2003, the pass percentage has also gone up steadily. “In the beginning, it was a dismal 20-30%. Now, 80-90% of children pass out with good marks,” he adds.

Pay, faculty problems

With enhanced enrolment, what remains dismal is the salaries paid to madrasa teachers, says Maulana Shafiqur Rahman, superintendent of the Deorail Madrasa in Assam, who was recognized as the best Urdu teacher of the year last month along with Rahmani. “Worse, the salaries never come on time.”

In Bihar, madrasa teachers get Rs2,000-3,800, while a recent hike in dearness allowance raised the salary of principals in seminaries aided by or affiliated to the state madrasa board to about Rs11,000 a month.

In Assam, apart from the meagre pay, there is an acute shortage of teachers, especially for science. The last appointment of teachers happened in 1999. “Thousands of teaching posts have been lying vacant since then. The government is neglecting minority education in the state, even as education standards keep falling,” says Rahman.

Vacant faculty positions have now become a challenge for these seminaries, says Rahmani, who has been aggressively trying to hire teachers for science and mathematics for the last two years. “For years, we have not taught modern subjects at the seminaries. Hence, there are no teachers good enough to be hired,” he says.

Much of this could be taken care of by the setting up of the national board under the Madrasa Modernisation Scheme.

Question marks

But questions about the scheme have been raised even by those who don’t necessarily fear its secular impact.

A section of detractors fears the introduction of a separate board for madrasas would alienate the Muslim community. “Ideally, there should be some provision in the existing education boards,” says Salim Akhtar Bellali, principal of Faazil Madrasa in Darbhanga, Bihar.

The agenda for reforming madrasas is also being linked with the question of countering “terrorism”, says Rahman.

In Assam, where his seminary imparts education to 350 Muslim children from economically backward sections, classes are often interrupted by police carrying out security checks. “We have computers, we have books in English, we have students who can converse in English—but no militants. The allegation that madrasas breed militants is completely baseless,” he says.

The government reserves the power to appoint the panel that would run the board, remove any member, and monitor the way funds are used. This provision has also caused the Muslim community to accuse the government of trying to control madrasas.

“The hurry with which the government is trying to implement things, it appears that it wants to regulate madrasas,” says Khalid Hamidi, professor of Arabic at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. “A madrasa means Islamic school. Universities like Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia recognize madrasa certificates. Then, what is the need for such modernization programmes?’’

Hamidi’s question relates partly to the concern that reforms may alter the “Islamic nature” of the madrasas, with some Muslims viewing the schools as an expression of identity rather than as seminaries where a young generation can be trained to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

This was first published in Mint [].

Education Is A Great Leveller And IITs Do It Best

I have always felt that IITs have been the subject of unfair criticism over the years. I think IITs flowed with the liberalization wave of India. Indian economy opened and offered IITians a chance to go all over the world. Brain drain happened and media reportage on big salaries for IITians became the sensational stories of success every Indian wanted to chase. I read this piece by Sandipan Deb in Mint recently and I felt I had so much to say. After all, I come from the state where a phenomenon like Super30 exists, having lifted over the years hundreds of bright students from economically weaker households out of their circumstances, and enabling their dreams to make it to the IITs. If you are interested in reading more about Bihar’s obsession with the IITs, you could read this story I did ages ago , but this still holds true.

My op-ed for Newslaundry, prompted by Deb’s piece, primarily says this:


I write today because the film Super30 reminded me of Ratan. He was my best friend in college where I was studying for my 12th. Tall, dark and sensitive, with a heart pure gold. Every morning, our college van undertook a bumpy ride to reach his house on the outskirts of Patna. He would emerge from the front door, his shoes sticking to the kutcha road muddied in the rains. In monsoons, I would see him wade, and wear the same mud-stained jeans throughout the week. For a girl who was constantly told to make friends with people she could learn from, Ratan was my best friend in a city where girls weren’t expected to compete. Ratan had a dream too – to make life comfortable for his parents. His father, a clerk at the Secretariat, believed he could make it to the IITs. After all, Ratan was the top of the class, great at Maths and English and Science. Unlike the students in Super30, he didn’t even need the coaching. Just eight hours of study every day and everyone knew his chances were bright.

Ratan made it to one of the top three IITs and drifted away. In a decade, our paths crossed and I found him transformed. Ratan had acquired an American accent, his hair coloured ember, and muscles the size of Stallone. And he was doing his best for his parents: right from bearing expenses for his sister’s wedding to getting his mother a 10,000 rupee facial in a tony beauty clinic in Delhi. His job at an American multinational had taken him around the world, and in just five years at his job, he could now afford the fees of a mid-career MBA in S

Ratan hasn’t been the only IITian I know. As a journalist writing on India’s higher education, I met hundreds of them on the IIT campuses. I still remember writing about the trio at IIT-Delhi who made a fun film called Formula 69, and they weren’t the only ones devising brilliant ways to express themselves, within and outside the academic frameworks. There were others whose IIT education helped them overcome the limitations imposed on them by their physical disabilities and the barriers of caste. I distinctly remember the absolutely inspiring story of this talented guy with a major physical deformity, who if not for his IIT education, wouldn’t be leading teams at MNCs today. What’s more, he fared handsomely in the marriage department and now is proud father of two bright kids completing his circle of joy at home. Then, there were many others who burnt the proverbial midnight oil to study mechanical engineering but took up coding jobs in the American companies because the money was good. 

For long, parents in India have ambitiously woven the IIT dreams for their sons and the boys have obliged. The path is usually decided in the womb – if it’s a boy, he needs to go to the IIT; if it’s a girl, she needs to be a doctor. Anyone else doing anything else is not good enough, a mere compromise for vaulting ambitions of families propelling aspiring IITians into the real and daunting challenge of making it to the IITs. It’s here, in this clamour of ambition, that we get to see the great enterprise of millions of Indians for whom education remains a great leveller and IITs, with their high standards of pedagogy and rigorous training, have been doing a great job of it. 

Super30, beyond the grit and glamour of its success stories, is also a reminder of what an education at the IIT has done for thousands of Indians over the years.  It has inspired, uplifted and made them believe in the power of education to make their lives better, and this is better than anything the materialistic brands in your Instagram feed promise you every day. In Kota, the city where coaching centres are grim reminders of the rat race for the IITs, the students come from villages and small towns most people in India’s cities wouldn’t have heard of. They hear of them in the headlines of stories celebrating their incredible successes. Fair enough then that the appeal of the IITs endures; more than 11 lakh students appeared for the IIT-JEE this year.

The real trouble  lies in the culture of looking at the IITs as repositories of money-minting jobs. An education doesn’t just prepare us for jobs; a good education’s primary job is to enable dreams, find our ever-lasting purpose in life and to allow us to find ways to live for that purpose. Yet, the appeal of brand IIT remains inextricably linked to its promise of jobs with attractive pay packages. The media coverage on IIT placements and the preponderance of reports on pay packages makes it worse. Making it to the IITs thus has become sort of an Indian fable – person makes it to the IIT and makes it big. Not surprisingly, because for long, a person’s success and social status have been defined by his job and the economic value of his labour. For men in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean economic hardship and loss of social status; it’s also an insurmountable barrier in the marriage market. 

Yet, the time has revealed that excruciating long hours and hard work have their limitations, especially in the age of automation which has wreaked havoc on jobs as we know them. It’s in this shaky new world that the nature of jobs, meaning of success and how one earns the living needs to be redefined. There may be cues for an alternative approach here. May be, disentangling from the pursuit of a job and career the pressure of making impossible amounts of money could lead us on the right path. Maybe then, we will see the unreasonable pressure on the IIT aspirants and the students easing up. And maybe then, we will truly learn how to appreciate the transformative power of the IITs, beyond the considerations of money and capitalistic ideas of success.

Do read the full piece here.

85% quota seats going empty as candidates fail to make the grade

With barely a month to go before they begin their new academic session, the six new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), launched by the government this year, are struggling to fill their incoming classes.

Against the backdrop of the government wanting to implement 27% quota for other backward classes (OBCs) in higher educational institutions, the new IITs have been unable to fill seats reserved for tribal students, who, along with scheduled castes (SCs) and OBCs, now add up to more than 50% of caste-based reservations of all available seats.

While all IITs — there are seven in operation — have had this problem of finding enough students who qualify for their reserved seats, this will be the first time that these slots will actually go waste.

That is because any unfilled seats at the older IITs were then filled by students, who had failed to qualify, but had then been admitted to a year-long preparatory course.

Surendra Prasad, director of IIT Delhi, says the six existing IITs that are mentoring the new IITs had recommended the preparatory course be skipped because of lack of infrastructure.

“We are launching six new IITs, many of which do not even have campuses,” he says. “Students admitted for three of the new IITs will attend classes at the mentor IITs, which means extra load on their faculty and infrastructure. So, directors of all the IITs in a meeting decided to not admit any students for preparatory course at the new IITs.”

The result: Out of the 54 seats reserved for students belonging to the scheduled tribes (STs) category in the six new IITs, only seven, or 12%, have been filled.

In IITs at Patna, Gandhinagar and Orissa, at current fill rates, there will be no tribal students in the class that begins in August. The proposed IITs in Punjab and Rajasthan (the respective state governments have not come up with specific sites for the campus, either temporary, or permanent) have admitted one student each, whereas IIT Hyderabad has five.

The three IITs at Rajasthan, Punjab and Orissa are going to commence their classes in August on the campuses of their mentor IITs at Kanpur, Delhi and Kharagpur, respectively.

The new IITs have done better with SC students, with 89 of the 108 slots available filled.

The OBC quota is full across all the IITs, according to N.M. Bhandari, an IIT-JEE (joint entrance examination) official at IIT Roorkee, which coordinated the entrance exam this year. “Effectively, this means as many as 47 seats reserved for tribal students remain vacant across the six new IITs this year, which is more than 85% of seats available in the category,” says Bhandari.

In the seven older IITs, 152 ST students have been admitted this year against 469 seats reserved for the category.

But the problem is less acute as the vacant seats have been filled by students admitted for the year-long preparatory course, an initiative by IITs to include quota-based students who remained below the eligibility cut-offs in the entrance examination, noted Bhandari.

Some 690 seats have been filled in the SC category out of 1,050 seats, with the rest occupied by admissions from the preparatory course students.

IIT officials ascribe the current loss of seats at the institutes this year to the continuing trend of poor performance by ST students at JEE.

“We have plenty of applications from the category, but only a small percentage qualify,” says Gautam Barua, director of IIT Guwahati, which is mentoring IIT, Patna.

In 2007, 20,892 SC candidates appeared for JEE, of which 594 qualified. Of the 5,909 ST candidates who wrote the exam, 109 candidates qualified.

This year, out of 28,393 SC candidates (36% more than those who took the test the year before), 690 qualified. For the ST seats, 8,514 took the exam and 159 cleared it.

Mentor’s role: IIT Delhi will play host to the new IIT Punjab when its classes start in August as the latter doesn’t have a campus yet. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

The IITs at Rajasthan, Punjab and Orissa still don’t have a physical campus, while classes at the IITs in Hyderabad, Patna and Gandhinagar, will be held from temporary locations provided by the state.

Meanwhile, at the IITs where cases of discrimination against the quota students are being hotly debated, especially after the recent case of the National Commission for Backward Castes directing IIT Delhi to review the expulsion of 12 students from the SC/ST category because they were underperforming, some say fewer numbers of quota students in the incoming class could result in even greater discrimination.

“The quota students face discrimination everywhere, starting from the canteens, laboratories and classes to the toilets. Such limited numbers in a class would make the students even more vulnerable as they are most often viewed as dumb heads who have made it to IITs because of the quotas,” says Narendra Kumar, general secretary of the SC/ST Welfare Union at IIT Delhi.

“It’s not about the numbers,” insists Prasad of IIT Delhi. “It’s a bigger issue that needs to be addressed to the core. The IITs strive to give access to quality education to as many students as possible. We need to bring the education system to a level where the students from the category can benefit from the seats reserved instead of the sheer wastage that can happen if they don’t qualify.”

Published in Mint.

Indian campuses get a foreign flavour

Opportunity brought Tatiana Alejandra Cardona to Phagwara, 335km north of New Delhi. This past summer, during her arduous search for a job, Cardona, who hails from Colombia, stumbled upon an online advertisement for faculty positions at Lovely Professional University (LPU), a private institution.

Cardona, who is 23, recalls that “the university appeared very big”, and since it was new, she thought, it might offer teaching opportunities. Teaching excited her, but so did the prospect of travelling to India. “Its job openings were so, so, so important to me,” she says. A year after she graduated in industrial engineering from Universidad Tecnologica de Pereira in Colombia, she joined LPU in July to teach microeconomics and quantitative techniques to management students.

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At LPU, in this small Punjab town, Cardona met somebody unlikely—a fellow Colombian. Diego Armando Hernandez had joined the previous month; he too, had been looking for a job back home, but couldn’t find one that allowed him to teach.

Adding diversity: Sharda University faculty member Peter Waugh (right). He arrived in India earlier this month from Britain to pursue his interest in silicon photonics. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“We realized there were two issues which were causing institutions, especially business schools, to hire white faculty on campus: lack of credibility and a limited faculty pool, since 10% of institutes in India have 90% of the best faculty available,” says Jagmohan Bhanver, chief executive officer of the Indian Institute of Financial Management (IIFM), a business school with seven campuses in India. IIFM hired five foreign teachers this year.

At the year-old Manav Rachna International University (MRIU) in Faridabad, the import of foreign teachers has been institutionalized. Yulia Doctor of Russia, who dresses in smart business suits, is MRIU’s window to its “international” appeal. A 23-year-old graduate in linguistics and languages from Moscow—and the first and only foreign faculty member at MRIU—Doctor teaches German and Russian to students. But that’s not her only brief.

As manager (protocol), Doctor, barely into a month of employment at MRIU, was also asked to receive delegates from Germany. She knows the importance of this work all too well. “I speak German, and when people from the West visit the university, I make them feel at home. My being here makes the university international.”

Similarly, many universities have hired consultants to help bring foreigners into the institution. Sharda University, in Greater Noida, has a team of consultants to help attract foreigners; at LPU, a “Division of International Affairs” formulates the university’s strategy, which includes collaborations with foreign universities, international student exchanges and faculty recruitments.

International edge: Mansi El Mansi taking a class at Sharda University in Greater Noida.

“The fact is, they are quite excited about teaching in India, and we are very serious about faculty acquisition,” says Aman Mittal, chief executive of LPU. “In fact, last year we were very aggressive about it. I myself have studied in the United Kingdom and we want to give our students a different classroom experience.”

There are some who criticize this new trend, and who read into it an exploitation of a certain colonial mindset. “According to the Indian common psychology, the words ‘white’ (or) ‘foreign’…represent intellectual superiority,” says Srinivasa Rao, assistant professor in history at Tiruchirapalli’s Bharathidasan University. “Secondly, it (the import of foreign faculty) could also amount to the arresting of the brain drain, money drain and removing the colonial ‘brand’ over the colonized.”

Rao thinks that foreign teachers now find India to be “a good destination for exploiting the colonial cultural construct… Getting a job in higher educational institutions is a time-consuming process in Europe and America. Here, if they are willing and if the government allows, they could stay forever, get respect for being foreigners, and also get higher salaries compared to Indians.”

The employment of white professionals is not singular to India, though. In 2004, a study on race in the US labour market by Harvard University professors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan concluded that white-sounding names receive 50% more callbacks for interviews than African-American ones. This gap was found to be uniform across occupation, industry and employer size.

To explain his choices, Prem Kumar Gupta, chancellor of Sharda University, refers to an in-house study conducted to find out why India hadn’t yet emerged as a global education hub. “One of the reasons we found was that we didn’t have ethnic diversity on our campuses. We don’t promote colours and cultures,” he says. “Second, we realized we hadn’t yet graduated from our fixed, rigid academic curricula.”

Thus, when Sharda University opened last year, one of its priorities was hiring foreigners to teach and also to train Indian faculty in international classroom practices. “Foreign faculty today are not just setting the quality benchmark for us; they are also helping us collaborate with foreign universities abroad,” Gupta says, explaining how pedagogy at the university is now more interactive than passive spoon feeding.

One Sharda University faculty member from overseas is Peter Waugh, who arrived earlier this month from Britain to pursue his interest in silicon photonics. Waugh jokes that he landed in India because he “didn’t fit into the UK education system”. He received his PhD only in 2008, after 11 years in the electronics trade, and is at pains to explain how there were few teaching positions in British universities.

At Sharda, though, Waugh is looking forward to setting up a photonics lab. His colleague Mansi El Mansi, with 17 years of teaching experience in Britain, joined Sharda University last year and has now decided to extend his contract with the university by another year.

Anshuman Singh, a first-year B.Tech student at Sharda, admits that he was attracted to the presence of foreign faculty, but he also bears testimony to the quality of classroom experience. “They ask many questions in class and encourage you to speak,” he says. “They make you feel that you are not at just any other university.”

Gupta admits that roughly a dozen foreign faculty members last year were sent back because they didn’t meet the teaching quality expected of them. “One can’t come here thinking that one is British or American and it will work for him,” he says. “(C)olour of skin won’t ensure quality. Last year, we hired 25 people; this year, we could hire only 10.”

The argument finds an echo in the general faculty crisis in India, which has deepened with the growth of the education sector. While the 472 universities, 22,000 colleges and thousands of other technical institutions in India represent a growth of 25% over the last five years, the country needs 803 more universities and 31,830 more college-level institutions in the next 10 years. The number of students is expected to rise to 42 million by 2020, which would require 4.2 million teachers, according to estimates available with the ministry of human resource development.

At IIFM, Bhanver says what is more challenging, after the recruitment of good faculty, is retaining them. “We provide time for quality research” and “a curriculum that constantly evolves,” he says, while admitting that most foreigners like to come as part-time faculty to deliver a course module or two.

William Byrnes, one of the five foreign faculty members hired by IIFM this year, is in demand not just in India but also in his home country. Taking time out of his work as associate dean of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California, Byrnes teaches compliance and ethics at IIFM. “The advantages we bring to the table for students is cross-disciplinary studies, and they also have the option of an American experience,” Byrnes says. “For students who can’t go to America for a year, we create opportunities here.”


Earlier published in Mint.

Jamia Millia fights to preserve secular spirit

In just a fortnight, Jamia Nagar, best known as the host of the historic Jamia Millia Islamia, has become a world of fear.

The realization hit A.K. Ramakrishnan, a professor at the university’s Centre for West Asian studies, after 19 September. That’s when bullets fired by the police at Batla House, one of the several closely nestled buildings in the area, killed one student, and also shattered a sense of security for others, creating shrouds of suspicion overall.

Seeking redressal: Students of Jamia Millia Islamia during a peace march against terrorism in New Delhi on 25 September. Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times

Instantly, effortlessly, Jamia Nagar transformed into an alleged haven for terror merchants.

A “laptop became a stronger weapon than an AK-47 and the terrorist emerged as the educated, Internet-savvy Muslim, and most possibly, a Jamia student”, says Ramakrishnan.

Now, a coalition of faculty, students and legal experts are fighting back, saying the scrutiny on the university is unconstitutional, and are offering legal aid to the detained. In the process, they contend with duelling definitions of Jamia Millia Islamia, better known as JMU, from its desire to be a minority institution while also remaining true to its secular founding.

Already, several students living in rented accommodations in Jamia Nagar were asked to move out by their landlords, and two—Ziaur Rehman and Zeeshan Ahmad—were picked up by the police for interrogation.

Even before the shootout, an Urdu scholar at the university was picked up by the police and later released. Countless others are moving to pre-empt such moves. One Muslim student at the university from Araria, Bihar, met Ramakrishnan with profound doubts.

“My parents called me up and asked me to return home. They even went to the extent of asking me to deregister myself from the university. I don’t know when or whether I would be coming back,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lecturer Manisha Sethi, like Ramakrishnan, was also flooded by an anxious stream of students, mostly Muslims, all waiting to return home.

“They were all scared by the brazen witch-hunting by the police. That was time for us to act. We keep hearing of blasts in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, but this was too close for comfort. This was right at our doorsteps and we couldn’t just ignore it,” says Sethi, lecturer at the varsity’s centre for comparative religions and civilization since December 2005, who visited the area several times after the encounter.

She and 40 other colleagues, mostly non-Muslims, then did what is often unheard of in university circles. They moved quickly to form Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group, a counter-response to the “ugly stereotypes of Muslim students and the university at large”, hoping to allay fears of their students and also bridge the quickly widening gap between the neighbourhood and the university.

This was in addition to the unprecedented offer of legal aid tendered by the university administration to the detained students.

Over the last 15 days, the group’s members have made frantic visits to the neighbourhood where about 200 students from the university stay, and demanded that the detained students be considered innocent until proven guilty. The university administration has even announced construction of new hostels to house more students. Currently, the hostels at Jamia accommodates 1,000 students.

To all the initiatives, they say, the idea of the neighbourhood is central.

“This is because this is where a large number of our students and teachers come from. We can’t abandon them and if they feel alienated, this does no good to anyone,” Sethi says.

But beneath the immediate and aggressively articulated response to the turn of events is a deeper concern. The overwhelming and perhaps unwarranted attention for the 88-year-old university—founded in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call in the 1920s to boycott all educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime—endangers its secular spirit, insists Tabrej Alam, secretary of the Jamia Teachers’ Association that unanimously supported vice-chancellor Mushirul Hasan’s controversial decision to provide legal aid to detained students, rattling off names of monuments on its campus and historic events that shaped the university.

“Secularists like Dr Zakir Husain was our vice-chancellor from 1926 to 1948, and the President of the nation. We are disturbed and distressed by the misperceptions about our institution. Surely, this is not what we deserve considering our liberal and progressive record,” Alam points out.

For the most part, the university does live up to Alam’s feverish secular pitch. From the Bagh-i-Nanak, named after Sikh religious leader Guru Nanak to the majestic Dabistan-i-Gandhi, one of the academic complexes named after Mahatma Gandhi, buildings on the Jamia campus reflect its Weltanschauung, robust reminders of its tryst with the freedom struggle and secular thought.

While the past is cherished, Anuradha Ghosh, professor at the university’s English department, also lists the successes of the present and argues that it does “embody the idea of India”.

“Jamia as a university has expanded like never before. With the expansion, we have various new centres and courses on a variety of subjects. We are no more an introvert university. We are asking questions and debating issues,” she explains.

Ghosh’s enthusiasm is palpable. From modern architecture on the campus to newly opened centres, the university wears an open look. More than 20 centres that have opened at the university in the last four years offer courses in subjects such as Gandhian studies, culture, media and governance, comparative religion and civilization, theoretical physics, interdisciplinary research in basic sciences, physiotherapy and rehabilitation sciences and West Asian studies.

To most academic discourses, the theme of partition has become central, and not an untouchable topic.

“Jamia as a university opposed the pernicious two-nation theory and has not wavered from the principles of pluralism and secularism. The expansion has attracted more students from various parts of the country and made it more secular and inclusive,” Alam says.

And, while Jamia’s tryst with terror may be new, the past few years did bring the reputation of violence to the university with administration sparring with the student union over admissions and fee hikes, and its teachers’ union demanding a “minority status” for the university.

While the Jamia students’ union was later dissolved, a petition on the status is still pending before the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, seeking to reserve half the seats for Muslim students.

Currently, the university has no religion-based reservations, though it does reserve 25% of its seats for students of Jamia wishing to continue further studies.

Ramakrishnan says the petition is more relevant now than ever before.

“With the stereotypes being propagated about the Muslims, it’s even more important to make space for them in institutions of higher learning. If you don’t allow them to move up the social ladder and have a future, what option do they have?”

Alam, who is also general secretary of the Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Association, cites the example of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which has often been in the news for unrest on campus.

“If universities like AMU and ours do not welcome students from the minority community, where will they go? It’s important more than ever that we protect our nationalist legacy while bringing Muslims into mainstream education.”

AMU teachers’ association notably extended support to Jamia in offering help to its students. But amid the earnestness of dispelling the stereotypes, questions about the implications of the university’s move to provide legal aid to the accused students once the investigations prove them guilty have become a forbidden territory. “We are just giving them a fair chance to present their case. This is just to instill confidence in our student community that their alma mater hasn’t abandoned them,” Alam says.

The 12,000-strong student community at Jamia would perhaps agree. But for Jamia’s many-coloured histories—with Gandhi’s begging bowl for its stumbling finances and Tagore’s welcome for its progressive school of thought— the present is an uneasy liability: an ironic picture of violence tugging at the heart of its secularism.


Earlier published in Mint.

Not enough teachers to educate India

Roop Singh Taroke, huddled in the back rows of a damp and congested classroom, drew a blank at the mention of a geometry box and looked to his teacher for help.

At the upper primary school in Amazhir village, only 30 students out of the 180 enrolled in classes I to VIII had turned up the morning after Raksha Bandhan, along with a guruji, or guest teacher.

Blackboard blues: A classroom at the government primary school in Amazhir village, Sehore, Madhya Pradesh. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The lanky Roop Singh Kharte, all of 20 and the lone guruji present, smiled nervously at Taroke. “I teach only Hindi,” he told the 15-year-old, before turning to a group of class II students clamouring in a corner.

Taroke, son of a farm labourer and a class VII student, had never seen an instrument box in his life although the math textbook has a chapter on geometry. Still, a student not having geometry box doesn’t seem like such a big deal. What’s more important is that there aren’t enough teachers.

One of the cornerstones of the Union government’s social welfare agenda, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) aims to put every Indian child in school. On 26 February, SSA will find prominent mention in finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget, given the Manmohan Singh government’s focus on inclusiveness.

In Amazhir, the challenges involved in implementing the programme are starkly apparent. In four bare rooms, a teacher conducts two classes at a time. Two of the four teachers have been hired on a year’s contract, including Kharte.

An undergraduate student at a college in Bhopal, the state capital about 80km away, Kharte teaches at the school during vacations for Rs150 per class.

Not the kind of remuneration that makes for regular attendance. Contract teachers, also known as “para” teachers, don’t turn up when the village gets cut off by heavy rain or at festival time, say parents.

Meanwhile, the state government has no clue how many such contract teachers are in the system. Madhya Pradesh was the only state not to provide data on contract teachers when the information was sought in 2003 by the National Council for Educational Research and Training.

“Perhaps, because this is the state to have employed the maximum number of para teachers,” said Anil Sadgopal, Bhopal–based educationist and member of a government-appointed committee that drafted the recently adopted Right to Education Bill, which ensures education for all between 6 and 14 years of age.

According to a 2000 report by the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), India’s states have more than 220,000 para teachers, of which 53.7%, or about 118,000, are in Madhya Pradesh.

Not surprisingly, 48 out of 374 government schools in Sehore’s Nasrullaganj block, of which Amazhir is a part, have no teachers, according to the Madhya Pradesh government website. Mint’s email and phone queries on the subject to the state’s primary education secretary Snehlata Srivastava remained unanswered.

Fifty-two schools have one teacher each, in violation of SSA norms. Only about 37 schools have more than four teachers each. “In 1997, when the government found the teaching vacancies were too many and they had scant resources, they adopted a recruitment policy which favoured para teachers,” Sadgopal said. “The number of such teachers has increased alarmingly over the last few years. It’s making the whole education system unstable.”

The instability that Sadgopal refers to has been caused by underqualified and untrained teachers who have no job security.

In most states including MP, the minimum educational qualification for para teachers has been lowered to class XII (and class X for women), thus doing away with the minimum qualification of a bachelor of education degree.

At the Shiksha Guarantee Shala (Education Guarantee School, or EGS) in Palaspani village— 30km from Amazhir—Radheshyam Barkhare is one of the para teachers at the primary school, set up by the state government to provide elementary education.

Palaspani’s vital connect to the world outside remains unchanged: a 4km-long kutcha road through the fields, the route Barkhare takes everyday from his village, Amirganj, for Rs2,000 a month. “If I were a regular teacher, I would be earning at least four times more,” he says. But then, he has only studied up to class XII.

Under the PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability) project run by Pratham, the largest non-governmental organization in the education sector, in collaboration with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a think tank in New Delhi—parents monitor teacher absenteeism, which shows that the school had to shut because no one turned up to hold classes on two days this month. The project, being run in six villages in Sehore, sensitizes parents towards making government schools accountable. “When it pours, the schools remain shut for days because none of the teachers turn up,” said Sobha Kalausia, whose son Atul is a class V student at the school.

Barkhare puts up a robust defence. “The roads sink in rainwater and there are snakes in the fields. Which route do we take?” he asks.

Salaries are irregular and incentives have dwindled to zero, he said. “These are times of financial famine for teachers. The government says it has no money to pay us. Our festivals have no colour,” Barkhare said.

School officials, however say, the system ensures lower absenteeism and better quality since the para teachers risk being fired for neglecting work.

“With permanent jobs, teachers slacken a bit,” said Kedar Singh, principal of the Sarvodaya Government School in Bhopal.

However, various studies on para teachers including a 2006 report released jointly by the World Bank and National Institute of Educational Planning and Research, describe the system as a cost-cutting measure. Each para teacher deployment costs the state one-fifth that of a regular teacher in Madhya Pradesh. Notably, teachers’ salaries are not covered under SSA, but left to the state governments to fund.

The report also points out that contract teachers are now the norm, especially in new schools.

First introduced in Rajasthan in the 1980s as Shiksha Karmis, the concept was lapped up by various states after the World Bank adopted it in the early 1990s, beginning with Uttar Pradesh, under DPEP, now a part of SSA.

The contract teacher arrangement does serve a purpose though.

“Para teachers have come up in response to the challenge of providing universal access to primary education under different situations,” said Yamini Aiyar of the accountability initiative, CPR. “Sometimes, they help in remote and tribal areas, which do not qualify for formal primary schools within the state government norms. They also meet the teacher requirement in regular schools.”

But Sadgopal says the system is discriminatory. “It doesn’t exist in the Navodayas or the Central schools and will not exist in the 6,000 model schools being set up by the government across the country because everyone knows, to run good schools, one can’t rely on para teachers who are paid even less than contract labourers,” he says.

This first appeared in Mint.

Delhi’s Belly | An equal music

Behind a tall, wrought-iron gate with sparse black paint peeling, the 300-year-old Anglo-Arabic Senior Secondary School at Ajmeri Gate, Delhi, is in the throes of change.

Past the numerous sandstone arches that adorn its façade, a large courtyard spreads into corridors and rooms where dozens of masons are busy restoring the heritage building. A library damaged by last year’s rain has been fixed with fresh white paint and teak-wood doors. The green Kota stone floor of an auditorium, complete with carpeted stage, glistens. Next to the din of renovation, a small, crowded chamber has anxious parents, including women in black veils, exchanging notes on admission fees and dates. As the classes disperse for lunch, a boy tells a girl, “You have been chosen class monitor.” Before the girl can react, he mocks, “In your dream!” They sprint and disappear.

This turn of affairs, principal M. Wasim Ahmad says, is unprecedented. Just last month, the school that admitted only boys until last year, prepared to admit a fresh group of girls as its first batch graduated. With more applications from girls piling up at the admission counters, and several from the first batch marking their presence in its classrooms, the male bastion is crumbling.

While his class XII colleagues nod in chorus, Daraksha says studying with boys makes her two younger sisters and her competitive—they were the first three girls admitted to the school.


“Girls have exhibited their keenness to study further. They are smart, in fact smarter than we expected, and absolute go-getters,” says Faiza Nissar Ali, who was the first female teacher to join the school, in 2006.


The impact is clearly visible. Girls have done better than boys in the internal exams in every stream other than science; Ali tries to explain this. The school lowered its cut-off for admission to the science stream last year to attract more girls. “This means that girls with average marks were also admitted, which is why they couldn’t cope with the science subjects.”

The aggression, however, is slowly giving way to cooperation in classrooms, says Saba Rehman, who teaches English. “The acceptance was slow to come by but the boys are now working with girls in class projects. Being in a class together fosters learning for both boys and girls and helps them deal with situations in rational ways,” Rehman adds.

At lunch, girls and boys go their different ways

Nine more women were appointed last year. As the school opened up, employees like Ali and Rehman, who had spent seven years at the school without a staff room or toilets for women, discovered the side benefits: They got the basic amenities.

Change is coming, but slowly, to the school which has produced students like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the eminent educationist and founder of Aligarh Muslim University; Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister; and Mirza Nasir-ud-din Masood, an Indian hockey Olympian.

During lunch break, there is a strict demarcation of spaces for boys and girls. Boys crowd the canteen. There is a separate counter in a corner for girls, but food is served to them in their common room. In the classrooms, boys and girls sit in separate rows. As the school closes, girls are asked to leave 5 minutes before the boys to ensure “safe passage”.

Maqsood Ahmed, a biology teacher, suggests a separate shift for girls instead of co-education. “It’s my suggestion, if you ask,’’ he says, looking at Yasmin, who poses a question, almost rhetorically, “But then, what use will the co-education be?’’

This is the question Nazma Parveen asked herself last year. The widowed mother of Daraksha, Ramsha and Gulafsha, who lives in Ballimaran, couldn’t resist the school’s offer to waive fees and open the science stream to girls in classes XI and XII. But she says she didn’t sleep well for a month when her daughters started attending the school.


The class VI student says she will braid her hair until her school uniform—salwar-kameez with a mandatory headscarf—arrives.

This was first published in Mint.